Friday, August 13, 2004
Saving Social Security: You just gotta love Paul Krugman. So book smart, but reality stupid.
[A] new Bush campaign ad pushes the theme of an "ownership society," and concludes with President Bush declaring, "I understand if you own something, you have a vital stake in the future of America."
Call me naïve, but I thought all Americans have a vital stake in the nation's future, regardless of how much property they own. (Should we go back to the days when states, arguing that only men of sufficient substance could be trusted, imposed property qualifications for voting?) Even if Mr. Bush is talking only about the economic future, don't workers have as much stake as property owners in the economy's success?
But there's a political imperative behind the "ownership society" theme: the need to provide pseudopopulist cover to policies that are, in reality, highly elitist.
Yes, all Americans have a stake in America's future -- but they may not believe that they do. Who cares more about America's future, someone who owns their own home or a homeless bum living on the street?
Do workers have a stake in the economy's success? Yes. Do they have "as much stake as property owners in the economy's success"? Well, that depends on how big the workers' raises will be that year or whether the boss wants a new Ferrari. Workers at employee-owned companies have a greater stake in a company's profitability and long-term survival than staff at a company that treats its employees poorly.
Krugman can pooh-pooh the idea of an ownership society all he likes, but even John Kerry agrees with the basic premise -- after all, he included the homeownership rate as a factor in his contrived "middle class misery index."
But where Krugman really gets me going is when he takes aim at the mere idea of privatizing Social Security.
The one seemingly substantive proposal is a blast from the past: a renewed call for the partial privatization of Social Security, which would divert payroll taxes into personal accounts. Mr. Bush campaigned on that issue in 2000, but he never acted on it. And there was a reason the idea went nowhere: it didn't make sense.
Social Security is, basically, a system in which each generation pays for the previous generation's retirement. If the payroll taxes of younger workers are diverted into private accounts, there will be a gaping financial hole: who will pay benefits to older Americans, who have spent their working lives paying into the current system? Unless you have a way to fill that multitrillion-dollar hole, privatization is an empty slogan, not a real proposal.
In 2001, Mr. Bush's handpicked commission on Social Security was unable to agree on a plan to create private accounts because there was no way to make the arithmetic work. Undaunted, this year the Bush campaign once again insists that privatization will lead to a "permanently strengthened Social Security system, without changing benefits for those now in or near retirement, and without raising payroll taxes on workers." In other words, 2 - 1 = 4.
I've said it before and I'll say it again -- Social Security as currently constructed cannot continue. The basis of Social Security's structure was the idea that there would always be plenty of young people working to take care of the few people in their old age. Now people are living longer and having fewer kids. When FDR started Social Security, the average life expectancy was right about 65. That meant that half of the people were never even expected to get one penny from the program -- they'd be dead before they could take advantage of it. Today the average life expectancy is into the low-70s and it continues to climb.
Krugman's position on Social Security is that the program's solvency isn't a pressing issue because by accounting standards the program is OK through about 2050-something. This ignores the fact that the program will start having to redeem those IOUs its got in its "lockbox" sometime in the 2010s.
Would partially privatizing Social Security leave a gaping hole in the short term? Certainly. But no one, including Krugman, has suggested any of the three other possible changes to the program to help keep it solvent: raising the retirement age, raising the payroll tax, or cutting benefits.
You'd think that such a prestigious economist would use his perch at the "newspaper of record" to lay out a well-researched solution to one of the most pressing fiscal problems facing the nation. But he can't be bothered when there are Republicans to bash.